07 Aug Breastfeeding and stigma

Breast milk is designed by nature as the perfect nourishment for your baby. Babies fed exclusively on breast milk for the first six months are healthier, with breastfeeding offering protection from infections, reducing the risk of your child becoming obese and developing diabetes, asthma and eczema later in life. With these benefits, why does the UK have among the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world?

Only around four in ten babies in the UK are still being breastfed by the time they are six to eight weeks of age. If we compare this statistic with the rates in Norway, where an impressive seven in ten babies are still breastfed at six months, it’s clear that the UK has much work to do. Some women may struggle to breastfeed, or they may have good reasons not to, however surveys suggest that many women don’t breastfeed because of fears of feeding in public and the perceived social stigma.

World Breastfeeding Week

The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week, so it’s a good time to explore the reasons why the number of mums choosing to breastfeed in this country is currently so low and according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) shows ‘little sign’ of improvement.

Problems with public breastfeeding

Many women are worried about feeding in public and media reports of women being humiliated in shops or open spaces only feed that fear. It is against the law in the UK to ask a woman to leave a public place because she is breastfeeding and research by Public Health England’s parenting service, Start4Life, shows that the majority of people (72%) support public breastfeeding, however these factors don’t appear to be affecting women’s feelings and choices.

More than one in three mothers avoid breastfeeding in public and six out of ten take steps to hide the activity as much as possible. That discomfort and embarrassment are part of the reason that breastfeeding rates drop off. Many mums start off feeding their babies by breast (74%) but just six to eight weeks later, that figure has tailed off to just 47%. In the Start4Life survey, one in ten women who chose not to breastfeed said one of the reasons for their choice was anxiety about feeding in public.

Dr Ann Hoskins from Public Health England said:

‘Breastfeeding gives babies the best start in life, and it comes with a whole host of benefits for the mother too. Anxiety about breastfeeding in public certainly shouldn’t be a barrier to breastfeeding in general. One of the great benefits of breastfeeding is that it can be done anytime and anywhere, so as a society we need to help new mothers feel comfortable in feeding their babies wherever and whenever they need to, and we all have a role to play in that’.

Any time, any place, anywhere?

The Start4Life survey was interesting because some of the results suggested that people had conflicting feelings about breastfeeding in public, with significant numbers not listing restaurants and public transport as acceptable venues. Is it any wonder that women are nervous?

A survey earlier this year by The Baby Show confirmed the problem. Although the vast majority of new parents felt that mums should be able to feed whenever and wherever they needed, about 85% of mums say they simply don’t feel comfortable about doing so because of social stigma.

Dr Gill Thomson who is part of the Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture Unit at the University of Central Lancashire says that as a country we need to do more to give women the confidence and freedom to breastfeed their babies.

‘Worries about stigma and embarrassment around breastfeeding can lead to some women feeling unable or unwilling to breastfeed in public. This can lead to isolation and some women stopping breastfeeding before they intended to. Breastfeeding is the most natural, healthy, best start a mother can provide for her infant. While legislation is in place to support public breastfeeding, more needs to be done to address the negative cultural attitudes that can undermine this choice’.

We all have a role to play in promoting acceptance of breastfeeding. If more mothers feed their babies in public, it will increase awareness and become a normal and everyday occurrence. If mothers hide away in loos or shroud themselves in wraps, smocks and blankets we may be perpetuating the idea that it is shameful or embarrassing. If you’re worried about breastfeeding in public ask other mums, your midwife or your health visitor for good places to feed in your local area and keep an eye out for Breastfeeding Friendly or Breastfeeding Welcome stickers. Breastfeeding can be a beautiful bonding experience, it’s free and it can boost your health and that of your baby. Something that great, really should be encouraged not stigmatised.

For more information on Breastfeeding welcome scheme, please visit https://www.breastfeedingwelcomescheme.org.uk/




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